The lust to meet authors ranks low, I think, on the roll of holy appetites; but it is an authentic pang.
A new place seems to me grounds for new prose. A teenage fascination with Ernest Hemingway’s posthumous memoirs, A Moveable Feast , set me on my way to Paris. Prose chased prose. I visited Rotterdam and Berlin for their film festivals. Prose followed film. A piece for prose; two for film—I’ve thought this asymmetrical, especially because real life was different.
In the early months of 2016, I visited Switzerland. At the airport, hungry or eager to see this old country new to my eyes, I bought a bunch of bananas for a few Swiss francs. I yelped inside after converting to naira. Back in Lagos, on any given day, you could find me haggling with a lady selling better bananas under the Computer Village bridge. If the bargaining process is a battle of wills, ours was attended by jokes and mock horror from the start. Some days I win and have for trophy a black bag laden with a bunch or two. Other days I feel I have parted with too much for unworthy loot. On a few occasions, nobody wins: She doesn’t make the sale; I leave empty-handed.
Here I was with a bunch of bananas which tasted like unripe plantain. And at a price higher than I’ve ever paid the lady under the Ikeja bridge, who sometimes throws in the odd conversation for no extra fee. One evening, for instance, she slapped a high price on her wares.
“Haba!” I grumbled. “You wan use the money go abroad?”
She laughed. “You think say if I go abroad I go come back?”
“You think say na so e easy,” I replied. “No think am.”
“If I go, I go do anything to remain,” she said, allowing a bit of stress on “anything.”
I paid for the inferior bananas, and received as change a Swiss coin the size of a medal. When my train pulled up, I boarded to Neuchâtel. I was in Switzerland to meet a writer who was working in Geneva, but I’d stay at Neuchâtel for some time. Unlike Hemingway, this writer was—is—a woman, African, and, crucially, vigorously alive. This last quality has its advantages. It also, as I came to see, comes with one disadvantage.
On arriving in Neuchâtel, bag on my back, I took the wrong exit out of the subway, and for some minutes, I wandered, failing to conjure my host Alice from the wet asphalt of the empty streets. I walked back to the subway and on a whim went back the way I left, this time waiting at a bus stop. I saw a girl in a hat walking up the road. As she got closer, she became Alice. She figured I used the wrong exit. We hugged in the cold.
In the days following my arrival, I came to see Neuchâtel, quiet and quaint, as a setting for some of the many American and European literary stories I read as a teenager, those dry tales with no twists and epiphanies too subtle to be perceived by a kid. Under the influence of Philip Roth, who never wrote stories of that kind, I may have titled the story “A Swiss Pastoral.” The library where Alice worked on her thesis would feature prominently in this story, as would the school within the same building. But I passed my days in Neuchâtel with nary a word on paper. And my characterization might have been wrong, in any case: When I told Alice her town was beautiful, she seemed fine with the adjective, but was irked by the noun. It’s a city, she said.
One evening, we went to a café. I must have been talking about meat because steak, still seething, appeared. The bartender, a slim Ethiopian, asked that I try absinthe, which has its origins in Alice’s town. I was skeptical. There to produce the drink was an apparatus that looked like a lab set for volumetric analysis, with the stand-in for a burette held vertically, and a glass, a sort of conical flask, on the bar table. The Ethiopian began the process of absinthe titration, still asking that I try the drink. Alice joined in.
“It’s like pastis,” they said.
Many months before, in Paris, urged by a friend and an acquaintance, I’d tried pastis, and concluded that there are few alcoholic beverages worse. But I gave in to absinthe because I was curious—how much worse than pastis could it be and why be on foreign ground if you can’t come close to an unfamiliar route to death? Afterward, I placed absinthe a little below pastis on my list of things to avoid putting in my mouth. Later I learned that absinthe was popular among writers; such Paris proponents as Hemingway and Proust were among its earnest imbibers. Shame I couldn’t join them.
Although it was Alice’s treat, I asked to see the menu, and beheld rather astronomic prices for such a small café. But it wasn’t the café; it wasn’t even Neuchâtel; it was Switzerland and me. I hadn’t learned to stop foolish mental conversions to naira. As a Stanley Kenani character says to another, “If you translate every price to the kwacha, you would buy nothing.” Kenani, who lives in Switzerland, would know.
Using pomme frites , potato chips, as unit commodity, prices almost doubled in Neuchâtel compared to the few other cities I’d seen of Europe. Nonetheless, I bought some chocolate as I left. My thought was a simple one: Why travel to Switzerland if you can’t buy Swiss chocolate, red ribbon tied in a fancy bow around its box, as present for an object of affection? Prices soar, vogues change, but love and romance keep deserving their due.
In Geneva, I found the ticket machine at my designated bus stop in French. These things have a button that calls up English, but I couldn’t find it. As I stood jabbing every button on the machine, my bus approached the stop. I turned to my neighbors in a panic. Man, woman, dog—none spoke English. A lady armed with English showed up as the bus left. She worked the machine, assuring me the bus would return in a few minutes. Her English was great.
“Where are you from?” I had to ask.
From the UK, it turned out. “No wonder,” the unsubtle homunculus present in the soul of every Nigerian muttered in my mind. In my experience, native speakers of the English language understand and are better understood by Nigerians, or at least by this Nigerian. Conversations with Europeans who don’t exactly need English can be a chore. The misunderstanding and endless calls for a repeat broadcast go both ways.
“Speak slowly,” they say.
“Speak correctly,” I am tempted to retort.
The bus dropped me off. I walked for a while, ending up at the United Nations headquarters too late to be allowed entry. I performed two consolatory acts: Through the gates, I tried to catch a glimpse of the Nigerian flag; I recruited a passerby to take a photo as I stood under the Broken Chair monument at the Palais des Nations. The results weren’t pleasant. The photo came out unclear. And besides, I probably saw the Algerian flag, as the green and white fabric fluttering in the sky was obscured by emblems of other countries.
I had better luck finding Petina Gappah. We became friends because of a shared love for prose and pop culture. Since clicking the friend request and follow buttons, I have learned we are both fans of the band Fleetwood Mac. And there is a thread on my wall where, apropos some issue, she draws an insight from Clint Eastwood’s The Bridges of Madison County —a 1995 film I remember mostly because, as is the wont of bookish boys, I bought the novel upon which it’s based for a girl a long time ago. (If a boy can’t quite find the words, it is aptly compensatory that he gives a gift containing thousands of them.)
Gappah and I had an easy conversation about writing, writers, and politics. How much new information about Nigerian writing I passed along, I can’t tell—Gappah is as plugged into the African literary scene as she is to the Western one. This, I guessed, is because her peers were the first Caine Generation—as represented by the avatars Binyavanga Wainaina, Helon Habila, and Chimamanda Adichie. Gappah was never nominated for that prize; instead her collection of short stories, An Elegy for Easterly , took the Guardian First Book Award , a win that may have confirmed her talent in some quarters, after her manuscript attracted bids from over a half-dozen publishers. She has written another collection of shorts, Rotten Row ; one of those shorts appeared in the New Yorker last September. In between, she wrote the novel The Book of Memory .
As we spoke, I thought it would be nice to still have the GFBA around, if only to say it spotted this hardworking talent at the start. Sadly, The Guardian closed shop on the award last year. Yet Gappah’s charming, self-deprecating words at the 2009 ceremony should survive. “Did you read the books on the shortlist?” she said. “I mean, seriously good. If I’d been judging the prize I certainly would not have chosen me.”
Within the many gossipy bits exchanged that evening in Geneva, I managed to insert one literary question. How do you go about filling in your characters after conceiving them?
I asked because Gappah’s characters have a quality of the real. One reads certain writers for certain reasons. You read Gappah for her way with character, her array of plausible, if unheroic, characters, and for her humor.
“I am a method writer,” said Gappah, adding that she sometimes adopts the mannerisms of her characters.
I laughed at this cultural cross-referencing. Invoking Stanislavski’s system to make a literary point suggested to me a hipper update of Hemingway claiming to learn tricks from Cezanne.
Talking to Gappah was pleasurable, and yet—why didn’t I write about Switzerland and, in so doing, achieve some film-writer symmetry of travel pieces?
It’s the trouble with living writers: They talk. They can gently suggest you don’t write about them, even in an uncritical travel piece. I quoted some negative statements said about Hemingway, and I still haven’t received a complaint from the dead man. For living writers, the thought could be: But this is no formal interview. What right, but one self-accorded, does anyone have to take a writer from life to paper? Without the strictures of a formal interview, a writer becomes a character inside another writer’s story. Aware of the limits of their vocation, writers are perhaps prevented from mindlessly acquiescing to informal portraits in prose. This is a view I sympathize with, but in practice I have been less agreeable.
At the first Aké Arts and Book Festival in 2013, I scribbled in a notepad as a famous writer held court. Minutes passed before he asked one of his companions just who was this guy barely contributing to the subject. They told him. At the time, I wrote reviews and humor pieces weekly for Metropole magazine.
“What are you writing?” he asked, turning to face me.
“Nothing,” I said.
“Come on,” he implored, “what are you writing?”
“Nothing,” I said.
This exchange was repeated a few times, throughout which I maintained a deliberate air of insouciance and disingenuous reticence. He was miffed. I was amused. The festival ended. Within months I lost the pad, the bulk of notes untyped. That loss, I’ve come to think, was karmic comeuppance of the comic or cosmic sort.
Years before, I had received my inaugural induction into the meeting of writers away from readings, festivals, and suchlike in Abuja. Lingering in that limbo called “awaiting result,” familiar to a vast number of Nigerian students, I wrote a review of the collection of short stories Nights of the Creaking Bed by Toni Kan. I was eager to put to use a newly bought tome containing selections from the first hundred years of the New York Times Book Review .
Around that time, a friend told me the Sunday Sun was about to start a weekly literary supplement. Kan was editor of the supplement. My review wasn’t a positive one. I sent it anyway—proof of an unpublished kid’s hunger, but also proof, if any is needed, that I was an undergrad, a catchall noun in my case for the adjectives Young, Cocky, and Very Foolish. Kan was none of those things. He published the review and replied with generous praise. We met in Abuja not long after, where he was again generous, with drinks on this occasion.
Abuja had a few literary events at the time, the best of which was Lola Shoneyin’s Infusion, a monthly meet with authors. You paid for drinks, but you could get your book signed, and if you were a little greedy and cunning, you could get the author in a small conversation as she signed. On at least one occasion I was greedy and cunning.
I forget now who invited the critic Ikhide Ikheloa to the city. But I recall his first words for all the wrong reasons: It was directed at the lady I was with, and far from generous. “Don’t follow writers,” he said, a twinkle in his American eye. “They don’t have money.”
These days I think of those words as tied to a joke around my circles: free hotel rooms and flight tickets are how you know you are on your way as a writer. These are the first fruits of a solitude spent wrestling with sentences: a necessity, housing, and a luxury, travel, offered at no cost. One could add prizes and perhaps a readership, but these are less certainties than promises. Maybe meeting writers you admire, and on a level above that of a pure fan, should count.
And what exactly might a writer require from an admired one? The meeting is, often enough, getting the acquaintance of a famous personality in the literary community. But the serious, ambitious writer wants more. She wants the permission that proceeds from approbation: She wants to be told she, too, writes well. As Lillian Hellman said of Dashiell Hammett, “Like most writers, he wanted to be admired by good writers.”
I may not have very well concealed the needy part of our exchange in Europe, my unspoken bless-me petition hanging in the air about us. When we talked about my work, I was a version of Roth’s young alter ego Nathan Zuckerman in The Ghost Writer , eager for the baptism of the respected novelist E. I. Lonoff: I should have been surprised to find that I wasn’t down on the hooked rug supplicating at his feet . . . I had come, you see, to submit myself for candidacy as nothing less than E. I. Lonoff’s spiritual son, to petition for his moral sponsorship and to win, if I could, the magical protection of his advocacy and his love.
Zuckerman rather strenuously makes his case. The magical protection of a fine writer’s advocacy might be nice but, that aside, one wants the Hellman/Hammett admiration and whatever fractionated friendship that might be possible. That evening, Gappah opened an essay I wrote online, read through, and appeared to come to a sentence that made her grin her peculiar grin. She read out the sentence and looked up.
“Oris,” she said, “you will be fine.”
We had gone to a bar, then walked a short way to a restaurant. Night had come in Geneva, a place where, unlike Lagos and as in many European cities, darkness never works conclusively, a trick of round-the-clock electricity.
By February this year, Geneva had acquired the status of a dream, its substance residing in notes I’d bothered to take. The taste of absinthe had dissipated, romance and its Swiss chocolate disappeared, and a mug purchased on my exit fallen to disuse.
I flew to Zanzibar sometime in the middle of the month, and the day after stopped by a coconut seller wheeling his produce on the streets. Last time I had coconut broken at one end with a cutlass was in Ghana years ago. I sat by the road and slowly upturned the coconut, tipping its water into my mouth, forgotten memories of Accra and Cape Coast recurring. As I handed the coconut to the seller to scrape the innards, I saw Andrew, a Ugandan journalist I met in South Africa two years prior.
“What are you doing here,” I asked in jest. “Shouldn't you be in Kampala?”
Like me, Andrew came in for the Sauti za Busara festival. I had caught him on his way to the festival office. I joined him. As we tried to find the place, a guy we had asked for directions from took us around Stone Town. He pointed at this and that. All historic; all went here, and then out that ear. In the end, he wanted cash for a job he wasn’t asked to perform, smiling the smile of an undeserving man who knows he’ll get what he doesn’t deserve. Andrew obliged.
The place was agog. When I got the chance, I checked Facebook and saw that Gappah had made a post about Zanzibar. Days later, I provided her a service at the Forodhani Gardens. Apparently, a local man was relentlessly propositioning her and I was elected as deterrent. All I had to do was smile, wave, and be a tall Nigerian. It worked. She later said men better respect other men than women.
Not long after this incident, as we sat in the Gardens eating Zanzibar Pizza, a local snack that has nothing do with pizza but tastes better, two white boys strolled past holding a guitar case. A price written in biro ink was taped to the body of their quarry. The brothers were leaving and wanted to sell their instrument.
“You can also sell it when you’re leaving so the guitar will always remain on the island,” one said, romance in his voice.
Gappah opened the case, tuned the guitar, and played several songs decently, her talking voice, normally a self-amused entity, reconfiguring itself to deliver Tracy Chapman’s “Talkin’ ’Bout a Revolution” in something close to the dreadlocked singer’s spirit. A small crowd gathered. I thought: Did they know this was an award-winning writer? New Yorker Writer Plays Surprise Concert in Zanzibar seemed a possible headline. Would an impromptu book reading pull as much of an audience? Unlikely, I figured, as much of a writer’s fame is niche. Our hope is that though the literary priest commands a shabby hut of a shrine, the devout and her two friends find it. Gappah bought the guitar.
Inside the festival grounds, behind the Gardens’ food and art stands, the Sauti za Busara raged. It was almost time for the headline performance by reggae artist Rocky Dawuni, the Ghanaian Grammy nominee I was to interview. I had to leave for my hotel and return to the festival. As we walked toward our hotels, we saw a sugarcane juice mini-plant; I asked how it worked. Gappah told me, knowledgeable already about its mechanism, perhaps a key trait in a fiction writer who should be interested in everything. We then passed by the hawking-guitar brothers half-reclined on white plastic chairs, having a smoke, two empty plates before them. They waved meekly.
“They must have been starving,” Gappah laughed.
She was in Zanzibar to research her fourth book, which has something to do with the very strange handling of the corpse of the explorer David Livingstone. The book of her life, she called it, the one she really wants to write.
“A writer is only a writer by the fourth book,” she said to me while I must have morosely contemplated my non-book-writer self. Her explanation, as I fuzzily recall it, goes thus: A writer is scared writing the first book, the second is for the publisher, the third is warm-up for the writer’s first true book. I have not the tools to disagree.
The venue of our first meeting in Zanzibar had been Mercury, a clean, well-lighted café named for Freddie, lead singer of Queen. Hours after arranging a meeting via Facebook, I walked to the pub and sat on a high chair by the bar, staring at Freddie Mercury mementoes hanging on a wall.
“I am looking for a Nigerian in a hat,” a lady’s voice called minutes after my entry. I turned. And there, the Zimbabwean writer stood, phone in hand, Gappah-grin on face.
Near the end of an essay recounting a meeting with V. S. Naipaul, Teju Cole tells the older writer, “This was not what I expected . . . I thought you’d be surly . . .”
Upon receiving this positive review, Naipaul does what you’d expect of a man with a sizable ego who has made a life out of sentences. “You must write it down,” he says to Cole, “so others know.”
I like to think Cole would have written that essay without Naipaul’s request. Writing is partly in service of others who should know—know of Naipaul’s non-surliness as of Gappah’s warmth, wit, and peculiar grin. This, at the minimum, is what I tell myself since by penning these words, unlike Cole, I have been expressly disobedient to a cherished elder.